Book Club review: The Telling Room

The Telling Room   by Michael Paterniti

blog by Cindy Bushey


While most readers follow a similar style of reading a book from the front cover to the back, there are some mavericks among us who have developed highly individual styles.  For instance, there is the quirky style of reading the last chapter first in order to determine if the reader likes the book enough to invest the time to read the entire work.  Another is the 20-60-20 style some of Zion’s readers advocated as the way to read our latest literary venture, The Telling Room by Michael Paterniti.  By this they meant read the first 20 percent, skip the middle 60 percent, and read the last 20 percent.  To say this book was a challenge to read was an understatement.

Despite the subtitle “A Tale of Love, Betrayal, Revenge, and the World’s Greatest Piece of Cheese”, it was very difficult to classify this book.  Many readers failed to realize at first that it was not a work of fiction but rather a recounting of a portion of the author’s life.  One thought it had to be taken as a travel book, not a bad assumption since most of the action was in the Castile region of Spain.  Those readers who borrowed the book from area libraries found it classified by the Dewey system as belonging in the 630’s or 640’s dealing with agriculture – again not an unreasonable idea since the author waxed long about the raising of the sheep which produced the milk used to create the cheese at the heart of the story.

And speaking of waxing long, that was exactly the main complaint of most of Zion’s readers.  Mr. Paterniti became enthralled with the story-telling of a unique Castilian named Ambrosio Molinos de las Heras, a larger-than-life throwback to a simpler time who revived the production of a family cheese.  Paterniti was so enamored of the man that he seemed to adopt his style of going off on tangents and throwing in odd facts and side stories.  While that might work in oral story-telling among a group of friends accompanied by delicious cheese and copious amounts of wine, the style does not translate well to the written form as tangents and side stories become footnotes taking up half pages.

Yet if one persevered (and it took a lot of dedication and perseverance!) through the footnote distractions and seemingly endless descriptions of sun-burned Castile, there were gems buried among the mountains of words that told the story of a man driven to resurrect a cheese and lifestyle only to find his life cut out from under him through the supposed perfidy of a life-long friend.  One reader could see parallels between the Spanish farmers tied to their animals and agricultural practices and the local farmers and fruitgrowers living in rhythm with the seasons here in AdamsCounty.  The author’s desire to escape the rat race of high pressure journalism to find a kinder, simpler way of living, even if only for a brief time, resonated with some readers.  Who among us hasn’t wanted at some time to escape the pressures of our daily lives?  Although not many of us move to Spain for a year to accomplish this!

There was a pithy observation somewhere in the middle of that interminable 60 percent pointing out how people rarely see themselves as others do and often rationalize and edit their recounted behavior in order to shape reality to the way they see themselves.  So readers could understand the flaw in Ambrosio’s character that eventually became apparent to Paterniti as he reluctantly sought out corroboration from Ambrosio’s friend Julian of the betrayal that inspired murderous thoughts in Ambrosio.